It’s amazing the places fun can take us. Sometimes we don’t even realize where we’re heading until we’ve arrived. That was the case for J.R. Blumenthal in 1998. The north Fort Collins man and his wife, Gayle, were unaware they were about to shift equestrian gears from first into overdrive.
Colorado native Gayle had a pony when she was a child, but Nebraska-born J.R. had remained horseless until adulthood. The couple lived in the Golden/Arvada area from 1966 until 2005, when they moved to Fort Collins. About halfway between locations, in 1987, they bought their first horse.
Solitary equines have a mystical way of convincing owners to upgrade to a herd. That initial Blumenthal horse, an Arabian, soon had a Quarter Horse followed by a Crabett Arabian for company.
And unlike feral cousins, domesticated equines don’t travel light. Just as a feathery newborn human requires major poundage (crib, changing table, playpen, swing, car seat, baby tub, diaper bag), our four-hooved charges need trailers, halters, ropes, brushes, bridles and saddles or carts and harness. The Blumenthals bought a carriage, but not just some rickety old rig. They became proud owners of Baby Doe Tabor’s landau. And, of course, you can’t simply hide that illustrious conveyance away in a shed.
In 1998, the Blumenthals applied to display their pristine carriage in the January 1999 Rose Parade. Not only was it welcomed but, due to its historical significance, chosen to carry Pasadena’s mayor and his family in the parade.
Fred DeBoer, an Ontario, Calif., dairy farmer, owned approximately 50 Friesian horses. He offered six of them to pull the antique landau.
Blumenthal didn’t even know what a Friesian looked like. A week before the parade, he travelled to DeBoer’s place in Ontario where he met, rode and fell in love with the breed. The aforementioned shifting of gears was quickly approaching.
In April 1999, DeBoer called Blumenthal with a simple question. Was he interested in some Friesians recently imported from The Netherlands? He was. Shift into overdrive.
Blumenthal zealously worked at training and showing his two big, black immigrants in driving events. He consistently won wherever he campaigned them, including at the largest pleasure driving show in the world in 2001 in Walnut Hills, N.Y. Out of more than 300 entries, his was the only from Colorado. He took reserve champion.
In January 2001, Blumenthal travelled to Leeuwarden in Friesland, The Netherlands, simply to observe the annual stallion show. Some top breed devotees and officials recognized his keen eye for horses. When he returned in 2002, he was asked if he was interested in becoming a Friesian judge.
Blumenthal gladly accepted and trained for the prestigious position for several years before being officially named a judge in 2008. In 2003, he’d joined the Friesian Horse Association of North Americas (FHANA) Board of Directors.
Although he retired from FHANA’s board in 2010, he continues as one of only two U.S. Friesian judges (the other is in Wisconsin). Worldwide, there are only five FPS- (Friesian studbook registry) approved judges outside of The Netherlands. To gauge animals’ quality, these highly knowledgeable people rate conformation and movement at 33 U.S. and Canadian inspection locations. Earned premiums remain on registration papers. This is serious business, particularly considering the value and rarity of the breed.
Blumenthal reported that there are presently only 80-90 Friesian stallions worldwide, approximately 27 of which are in the United States. Compare the number of registered quarter horses, thoroughbreds, standardbreds, Arabians, Morgans, saddlebreds or Tennessee walkers to the Friesian’s approximate 50,000 and their scarcity becomes yet more apparent. Blumenthal estimates there are 100-150 registered animals in Colorado.
This is not a breed for the faint of funds. A well-trained performance horse fetches $20,000-$40,000 or more. Want a less-costly, “blank slate”? Weanlings demand $8,000-$10,000 and up.
Friesian-type horses were frequently depicted in Old Dutch Masters’ paintings of mounted knights. They performed high school exercises in 15th and 16th century riding schools in France and Spain. Even with roots that deep, the current breed registry dates back as a formal organization to only 1879.
Blumenthal remains very busy with Friesian activities. As he has since 2002, he goes yearly to The Netherlands for continuing education. He logs 60,000 frequent flyer miles annually between that excursion and his many North American judging journeys. And Blumenthal took three horses to a Reno, Nev., show last October, where they won a carriage class in a hitch type called a Unicorn (two wheelers and one up front).
Blumenthal held clinics the past two years for the United States Equestrian Federation (USEF). Gayle helped prepare the PowerPoint presentations used to train USEF judges for their Friesians cards. Blumenthal also serves on USEF’s committee for American Driving Society criteria with the goal of combining the two groups’ rules.
At age 67, Blumenthal is in the process of retiring. Gayle seldom travels with her husband, and only twice accompanied him to The Netherlands. They want to enjoy more recreational trips together, as well as other activities. So, Blumenthal will retire as a judge in a few years and cut back on breeding (he has just two or three mares in foal for 2012). But he expects to always have a horse or two around, just for fun.
That’s not surprising conjecture from the horseman who got where he is today by doing what he thoroughly enjoys.
“The reason we have the hobbies we do is to have fun,” Blumenthal said. “If we lose touch with that, it ceases to be fun. And I’m big on fun!”